HONG KONG — It was meant to be a “people’s bridge” — a catalyst for China’s efforts to draw Hong Kong and Macau closer to the mainland.
But for the residents of the quiet Hong Kong suburb of Tung Chung, the initial fanfare following the opening of the world’s longest sea bridge last month has quickly given way to frustration. It’s an early sign that it will take more than a 34-mile megastructure to overcome the resentment that is festering between Hong Kong residents and mainland Chinese.
Nearly a million mainland tourists have crossed the new bridge into Hong Kong in the month since it opened. Most of these tourists have then poured out of buses in Tung Chung, a mostly residential town close to the port with a population of about 45,000, for a quick shopping stop before returning home.
The sudden influx of mainland Chinese has sparked a litany of complaints among Tung Chung’s residents.
Here they were, the locals complained, buying up all the infant formula and medicated oils in the local pharmacy. There they were, camping out at its doorstep and loitering in the shopping mall plaza. There was litter everywhere. The lines were longer. The noise levels were louder.
They even brought their own food and snacks, locals sniffed, a telltale sign that these “people from the bridge,” as one person described them, were “low-end” tourists.
“I don’t mind tourists from overseas or even mainland China,” said Erica Wong, 46, a Hong Kong native and Tung Chung resident. “But not that kind of tourist, if you know what I mean.”
Tensions peaked earlier this month when local activists showed up at the Citygate Outlets, a mall that has become the central gathering point in Tung Chung for the tourists. The activists sought to root out unlicensed tour groups by surrounding group leaders and demanding to see their operating permits. Using bullhorns, they gruffly urged elderly tourists resting on shop ledges to stand up.
Shouting matches erupted between the activists and a local pro-Beijing group that had also showed up. Two people were arrested.
“There are so many mainland tourists invading our lifestyle and living space and we cannot tolerate that,” said Roy Tam, a local activist who helped organize the protests. “They are coming to our shops and buying baby milk powder, medicine and even menstruation pads. How could they buy those things in Hong Kong? They should buy them in their own cities.”
Not all locals were comfortable with how the tourists were being treated. Siu Wai-hay, 72, shook his head at the activists, saying they shouldn’t humiliate the mainlanders.
“We’re all Chinese people with yellow skin. Why are you discriminating against your own people?” he asked, suggesting that more chairs be set up to accommodate the visitors.
Still, the tensions in Tung Chung are the latest expression of growing concerns in Hong Kong about the mainland’s growing influence in the semiautonomous city. Much of the anger has been directed toward the government in Beijing, but there has been no shortage of complaints about mainland Chinese over the years.
Middle-class families and younger residents in particular have felt the squeeze as mainland Chinese have poured money into Hong Kong, sending prices and rents soaring.
Some activists who argue that Hong Kong has a unique identity that needs to be protected — known as localists — have advocated independence for the city, a topic that has become increasingly taboo. At times, they have used rhetoric seen by many as bigoted, calling mainlanders “locusts” and “invaders” and using a derogatory term, “Chee-na,” instead of saying “China.”
Fueling the resentment, experts say, is a widespread feeling that the vision originally laid out for Hong Kong residents in 1997, when the former British colony was transferred to Chinese rule, is quickly slipping away.
“Before 1997, the Hong Kong people believed that we were more advanced in terms of economic development and that China would make adjustments to be more like us,” said Ray Yep, a professor of politics at the City University of Hong Kong. “But no one expected China to grow that fast, and now it’s turned the other way around. We have realized that if we want to engage China, we are the ones that will have to make adjustments.”
The growing hostility between local residents and mainland Chinese has resulted in confrontations around the city, particularly on university campuses and in border towns like Tung Chung.
Many mainland Chinese in Hong Kong have said they make an effort to speak English instead of Mandarin Chinese, believing that Mandarin speakers are often treated worse by locals.
Some, like Liu Chang, 34, who moved to Hong Kong with her family from the mainland two years ago, say they sympathize with the locals.
Ms. Liu recalled visiting the border town of Sheung Shui, which in 2012 was the site of angry protests over a competition for resources — driven by the town’s many parallel traders, who evaded taxes by buying goods to sell at a profit over the border.
Seeing those traders, the litter on the ground and the suitcases blocking the path, she said, helped her understand why many Hong Kong residents had a negative view of mainland Chinese.
“It has really impacted their livelihood, I felt it very clearly, so I can understand where they are coming from,” she said.
But for some mainland Chinese, the backlash has only hardened the view that locals were not sufficiently grateful for the economic boost the mainland had given Hong Kong over the years.
Mainland tourists accounted for three-quarters of all tourism to Hong Kong last year, according to the Hong Kong Tourism Association.
“We are forgetting that Hong Kong’s wealth didn’t come from heaven,” said Timothy Chui, director of the tourism association.
In Tung Chung, many of the tourists have been arriving on day packages, paying mainland tour operators $14 to $72 for a ticket to ride the bus across the bridge and do some shopping before heading back to the mainland at night.
He Shun, a retiree, paid $70 just to see the new bridge. Like others in his group, he had packed biscuits and fruit so he wouldn’t have to spend money at the restaurants.
“We’re not really here to buy anything, only to see the bridge and take a walk around,” Mr. He said.
In recent days, the local government has moved to divert tourists away from Tung Chung to other parts of the city. Tourism authorities in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou issued an “urgent notice” this week saying that they would crack down on unregistered tour guides organizing trips to Hong Kong. The notice also told registered tour groups to avoid departing on weekends if possible.
Experts say the measures provide short-term relief but do little to dispel the rising sense of helplessness among many Hong Kong residents.
“Deep in our hearts we know that Hong Kong’s integration with China is important in an economic sense,” said Mr. Yep, the professor. “It’s going to happen anyway — we are a local government, so you can’t avoid China.”
“On the other hand, we are frustrated in many ways,” he added. “So we try to find a middle ground.”